The State Of Independence: The Live Indie Sector Is More Connected Than Ever But Challenges Still Abound

Fontaines D.C.
AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 13: Grian Chatten of Fontaines D.C performs at Cheer Up Charlies on March 13, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Lorne Thomson/Redferns)

With Independence Day upon us, Pollstar is once again devoting its July 4th issue to the live industry’s independent sector. For many, it’s the most dynamic, exciting and, ultimately, rewarding part of the live ecosystem. It’s here, on small stages across the globe, where independent artists, often with independent managers, agents, talent buyers, promoters, ticketers and touring staff in tow, are first illuminated. It’s where buzz catches fire and discovery runs rampant. For a cost, often lower than parking at the future theater, arena or stadium many will eventually play, one can find emerging brilliance from young acts like Fontaines D.C., Ethel Cain, Gang of Youths, Wet Leg, Jaimie Branch, Fly Anakin, Remi Wolf, Black Country, New Road, Brittney Spencer, Moore Kismet and many, many others.  

Thankfully, over the past 28 months, live’s independent sector has come an exceedingly long way. Calendars are stuffed, staffing is reaching pre-pandemic levels and demand, while soft in some markets, has improved drastically. That said, the sector still faces a hydra-headed beast of challenges, much like the larger economy. This includes rampant inflation, labor and supply chain shortages and uneven consumer confidence as the recovery from this most brutal epoch continues.

“Ask me in a year, when I may have begun to understand the chaos that has enveloped our business,” says High Road Touring’s Frank Riley, when asked how his business is doing in 2022 for Pollstar’s independent live business survey. That said, the veteran independent agent says he sees “the opportunity to diversify in real ways.” It’s that exact ethos that got many businesses in this industry through the tough times. 

For independent venues, the existential threat the pandemic unleashed galvanized an outpouring of national support for the sector like nothing ever. The Small Venue Operator Grant (SVOG), the massive $16.25 billion bipartisan grant first passed in December 2020 and made law in March 2021, is the largest arts grant ever passed by the U.S. government. It was spearheaded by the National Independent Venue Association, which formed in March 2020 out of the pandemic rubble and effectively advocated for independent venues while creating a new industry association that continues to work on behalf of the sector.  

“On one hand, venues have never been more united or had the ability for independent owners and operators to work together in whatever way with the relationships stronger now than they were before,” says Rev. Moose, Executive Director/Co-Founder of NIVA (and Managing Partner/Co-Founder of Marauder). “From that perspective, it’s never been better; but, from the practical day-to-day of running an actual venue, it’s never been more difficult. The pandemic is still very much affecting businesses. We are absolutely not through to the other side. There are cancellations and economic issues and no-shows and a number of different financial stresses continuing to wreak havoc on the independent sector that is making it more and more difficult for folks that were already dealing with relatively small profit margins to be able to see the light at the end of this tunnel.”

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
Playing The Great Gig In The Sky: The Knitting Factory announced on June 17 that after 13 years it would be closing down its Williamsburg, Brooklyn location in August.

“To our BK friends and family – we are saddened to announce that our time in Williamsburg is coming to an end. We will be closing our doors for the last time on August 21st.

The past 13 years have been incredible, and we could not be more proud of our stay on Metropolitan Ave. We are going to miss the live music and comedy that graced the stage more than we can say. But it is time for the Knit to (once again) reinvent itself.

KnittingFactoryBK, Instagram, June 17, 2022

The post above came as a shock to many as the Knitting Factory, a venue originally founded by Michael Dorf in 1987, is an iconic global brand,  When asked in our survey about their business, Knitting Factory Entertainment’s current senior talent buyer, James Irvine, is undeterred by the challenges.

“With the hardships that were incurred, Knitting Factory did find some silver linings,” Irvine wrote. “I think because KFE is an independent, we could move more quickly and were more malleable to the different circumstances and issues that were thrown at the industry as a whole. We have been incredibly fortunate to find some new festivals and venues to work on such as Maha Festival, Hop Springs, Alma and Wine Country Amphitheater. Conversely, we just announced the closing of our Brooklyn Knitting Factory location due to a staggering increase to our rent in a post-COVID world. New York City is the cornerstone of the Knitting Factory story, we’re not quite ready to let it go, so stay tuned…”

The independent venue sector’s recovery, it would seem, is uneven and at an inflection point of sorts.  The day this Independence Day special issue closes, June 30, 2022, is significantly the last day SVOG grant recipients can use funds for expenses. For some still struggling, this may be ripping bandages off prematurely. At the same time, for entrepreneurially-minded businesses, such as High Road or Knitting Factory, there’s still loads of opportunity for new business models, partnerships, efficiencies and more. 

Pollstar’s special Independents issue, which will post throughout next week, includes other examples of indie innovators, including: Brownies & Lemonade’s creative director Chad Kenney, who explains how his brand and promotions company went from renegade house parties to stages at Coachella and Lollapalooza; Boxoffice Insider looks at the great Phoebe Bridgers, whose most recent Pollstar Boxoffice figures include two shows at The Anthem in Washington, D.C., produced by I.M.P., which drew 12,000 on June 11-12 grossing an impressive $582,000; a new independent festival, The Big Climate Thing, which launches this fall in New York with aspirations to do nothing less than change how festivals and tours are produced; a special on Pine Knob Amphitheater, an independently owned and operated venue outside Detroit celebrating its 50th year in business; and Big Freedia, the New Orleans Bounce music queen who is this year’s artist ambassador to Independent Venue Week, which returns for its fifth year July 11-17. 

Rev Moose
Here Comes The Rev: Rev. Moose, who runs Marauder, puts on the U.S. edition of Independent Venue Week and is a co-founder of National Independent Venue Association, says that amongst independent venues relationships are stronger than ever but “the practical day-to-day of running an actual venue has never been more difficult.”

“We have venues from every single state and D.C. taking part,” says Rev. Moose, who with Marauder is producing the fifth U.S. edition of Independent Venue Week. “It’s shows from everywhere for every type of room, festival, indoors, outdoors, comedy events, music events – if it’s in an independent venue or working with an independent promoter, it has the ability to be part of Independent Venue Week.”  

When asked what the big message is for this year’s Independent Venue Week, Moose is succinct: “Buy a fucking ticket.”  Words to live by.